We are always creating new things here at Ock Pop Tok and we recently developed a new class for visitors at our Living Crafts Centre, called the Village Weaver Class. The Village Weaver Projects is one of my favorite at Ock Pop Tok. Through this project, we work with over 400 weavers throughout Laos in 11 of the 18 provinces.
These partnerships lead to life changing economic opportunities for remote villages, and help customers truly discover the rich diversity in craftsmanship around Laos through its textiles.
The class offers visitors, the chance to learn about Laos and some of its ethnic groups through their artisan traditions. It is also shorter than our other half day activities so it works well for guests who don’t have as much time to spend at our Centre. Participants learn about three distinct ethnic groups who participate in our Village Weaver Projects and create a small craft representative of each of these groups.
As we trained the Living Crafts Centre team to teach the new class, we realized that they did not fully understand how the Village Weaver Projects function. So what better way to learn than to take a field trip to visit some of the villages where we work?
We set off on our adventure early on a foggy morning. As we all found our seats, the van was buzzing with excitement. The Ock Pop Tok team consisted of me and Jo, five members of our team (Moonoy, Fuea, Mitta, Khon and Oun). Our driver, Jorn raced through the curvy mountain road as we peered out the window at the stunning scenery. The jagged green mountains were blanketed by a light mist that was accented by thick clouds hugging the peaks. The Ou river rambled below us.
As we drove, we discussed the concept of the Village Weaver Projects. The first question people had was: how does OPT select a village to participate in the project? Jo explained that we always partner with other organizations. One of our main partners is the Laos Women’s Union, a government organization with representation on all levels – from national representatives to village members. So, OPT partners with NGOs and government organizations on poverty reduction missions. When one of these organizations thinks that the handicrafts sector needs help or could be a viable source of income for the village, they call OPT.
We start by doing a value chain analysis, to see where it is broken or could be improved. Once we find a solution, we develop a project to present to the village. If they agree to participate we begin the training and then continue to work with the village providing market access for their products as we further develop our relationship.
After about 2 hours we arrived in Ban Tabu, a Tai Dam village. The women were waiting for us. This village is known for producing fine silk. They gave us a demonstration, reeling the silk off the cocoons. We loved watching them reel the silk.
They put cocoons in a pot of water, over a fire. Then they slowly unravel the cocoons, 30 cocoons at a time, careful not to break the long strands of silk, around 300-400 meters per cocoon! As they unravel the cocoons, the ‘grubs’ float to the top. One of the women fished them out and put them in a bucket.
The grubs are considered a delicacy and the local people really like to eat them. The group also sells the grubs to earn a little extra income. As a learning experience we all had to try them. I was a little freaked out by the idea, but they weren’t bad.
Moonoy explains, “It was so cool to see how they make the silk. Now I will be able to tell customers about the process because I watched them do it with my own eyes! I also like tasting the grub. It didn’t have a lot of flavor, but tasted like a potato.”
Then we got back in the van to drive to Ban Na Nyang, which is known for its indigo and cotton production. The village is beautiful! It is set in the green jungle and consists of large wooden houses built on thick stilts, setting them above the ground.
The women use the space under the houses to prepare the cotton and indigo dyes, and to weave the stunning textiles. Oun exclaims, “I loved seeing these beautiful houses. Now that I have been to the village and seen the project in action, I will be able to explain this to clients and tell them how the people in the villages really live. It was a very special opportunity for me.”
We had a delicious lunch of spinach soup, sticky rice, eggs, and chili. Then we walked around the village visiting with different people that we met along the way, while the group set up a cotton making demonstration for us.
We learned about the importance of prayer flags to the Tai Daeng people on our visit to the temple and then returned to Mrs. Bouathong’s house to learn about the cotton making process. We weren’t able to visit the cotton fields because it was raining and takes more than an hour to walk there. However the women showed us the cotton pods that are harvested straight from the plant. Then they showed all 3 steps required to process the cotton from the pods into the yarn. It was incredible to watch the transformation. It definitely made me appreciate the labor that goes into making cotton.
Next we were treated to a short demonstration about indigo dyes. They showed us how they make the dye and how they are able to achieve the many different shades of blue from the same indigo plant.
Meeting these groups and visiting these villages, gave me an even greater appreciation for the fact that Ock Pop Tok lives the values of fair trade. As Mitta explains, “I used to weave when I lived in my village with my family, but I never knew the process for creating the silk and cotton yarn. This trip showed me how much time and attention it takes to get good quality materials for weaving. It takes a month to raise the silk worms and spin the silk yarn and over six months to create the cotton thread from planting the cotton so spinning the yarn for weaving.”
Locally sourcing materials is a key pillar in this process. Yes, we can get cheaper synthetic silk or cotton from Thailand, but there is so much more value supporting the local communities in these villages.
The quality of a product starts with the quality of the raw materials. The story of the textile also starts there, and we have a great story to tell.